INTRODUCTION The Only Duckling in a Room Full of Swans:Do Surrounding People Influence Body-esteem?Numerous studies on sex differences in body-esteem have shown that men and women experience exposure to mass media images of the “ideal” body type and overall societal pressures concerning attractiveness in different ways. Researchers have found that while low body-esteem seems to affect women much moreso than men, men are becoming increasingly body-conscious (Giant & Vartanian, 2001). The discovery of what exactly causes or aggravates low body-esteem is a pressing social interest today, particularly as the prevalence of eating disorders and low self-esteem seems to be an increasing problem.One major factor contributing to body dissatisfaction seems to be the influence of mass media images. It is generally believed that one of the biggest reasons so many young girls in the United States are developing eating disorders is due to our unrealistic idealization of the thin, waif-like body type popularized in magazines, television, movies, and advertising. In fact, one study found that subjects of both genders report feeling less satisfied with their bodes as measured by rating scales and general body size estimation after viewing pictures of thin people (Mundray & Ogden, 1996). Interestingly enough, the reverse effect is noted when subjects are exposed to images of overweight bodies. Thus, it may be reasonable to draw a possible link between constant exposure to waif-like idealized imagery and lowered levels of body satisfaction.There have been many differences between genders in regard to the influence of mass media and societal pressures reported in previous research. It seems that although both genders are influenced by mass media images, media influence alone predicts body dissatisfaction more strongly in women than in men (Palladino Green, 2003). While low body-esteem seems to affect women much moreso than men, men are becoming increasingly body-conscious. Men are not immune to the results of constant bombardment of “perfect” bodies in mass media, nor are they capable of ignoring pressures and teasing from family and peers. In fact, both men’s and women’s body-esteem levels can be significantly correlated with susceptibility to mass media influence and appearance-related teasing (Vartanian et al., 2001). Although research abounds in the area of media influence on women’s body-esteem, researchers have only recently begun to turn their attention to the male experience. Thus, the impact of social pressure on men is an area in need of greater attention in future studies. Beauty is arguably intrinsic to the traditional feminine gender role. Although physical attractiveness is a factor in the typical male role as well, studies have shown that women suffer greater levels of anxiety about their physical appearance (Freedman, 1984). Although a lowered level of body-esteem is the most notable effect of this unspoken but understood expectation, the influence is widespread and even cyclical. Women are so pressured to look a certain way that they resort to unhealthy dieting or eating disorders, tanning, unnecessary surgery, and even smoking (Vartanian et al., 2001) to maintain a certain level of thinness. In return, it is plausible to surmise that women develop unattractive conditions like cosmetic acne, wrinkled or damaged skin, etc., all of which further detract from a woman’s feeling of beauty. In fact, some studies have shown that the best predictor of general self-esteem levels vary by age and gender, with girls reporting lower self-esteem than boys in early adolescence, and late adolescent boys reporting lower self-esteem than their younger counterparts (Kilmartin, Kliewer, Myers, & Polce-Lynch, 2000).Not only is there a difference between genders, there appears to be differences between even sexual orientations. Heterosexual females seem to experience the highest levels of eating disorder symptoms and concern with body shape and size (Strong, Geer, Netemyer, & Williamson, 2000). Heterosexual males report the lowest levels, with gay males and lesbians falling in the middle. Lesbians report the least concern with physical appearance, but a general overconcern with body size and shape seems to be the strongest psychosocial correlate of eating disorder symptoms in all four groups.Another major influence is pressure from friends, family, and general societal messages. Studies have shown that awareness of social pressures is a significant predictor of eating dysfunction (Cusumano & Thompson, 1997). However, internalization of these expectations accounts for a greater level of variance than does mere awareness. Thus, the key to understanding where body-esteem is most affected lies in uncovering where awareness turns to internalization.One of the most important aspects of understanding how we can improve body-esteem in our society is to figure out how body-esteem becomes distorted to begin with. Just how important is the influence of the people around you in self-evaluation of your body? The purpose of this study is to see how a person’s self-reported body-esteem and his/her physical attractiveness as perceived by others is affected by the mean physical attractiveness of the surrounding subjects being given a series of questionnaires regarding body type. I anticipated that those subjects being surrounded by a group with a higher average physical attractiveness score would rate themselves lower.
I asked for voluntary participation in the study from members of two introductory psychology courses, one intermediate psychology course, and one Lifespan Development course at Missouri Western State College in Saint Joseph, Missouri. The instructors of the courses offered extra credit points for participation. I had 25 subjects complete the study, with only 19 producing complete data to be analyzed. No demographics were collected.
Two questionnaires were administered on paper to the participants. The questionnaires consisted of the Body-esteem Scale for Adolescents and Adults (Mendelson, Mendelson, and White, 2001) and a likert-type Physical Attractiveness Scale (O’Dell, 2005). A copy of each of the questionnaires can be found in Appendix A (Physical Attractiveness Scale) and Figure 1 (Body-esteem Scale for Adolescents and Adults).
The test subjects were given the series of questionnaires in a small room, only a few people at a time. The average number of people per group was 5. First, participants were seated at a round table, facing one another, and asked to complete the Physical Attractiveness Scale. The participants were to rank each of the other participants on their physical attractiveness, from 1-10. Next, participants filled out the Body-esteem Scale for Adolescents and Adults. The scores on the Body-esteem Scale for Adolescents and Adults were used to evaluate the participants. The independent variables were the self-reported physical attractiveness (from 1-10) of the participant, the average physical attractiveness of the other participants as reported by the subject, and the average physical attractiveness of the subject as reported by the others.
RESULTS A multiple linear regression was calculated predicting subjects’ body-esteem scores based on how others ranked them, how they ranked others, and how they ranked themselves. The regression equation was significant (F(3,15) = 3.480, p < .05) with an R2 of .410. Body-esteem equals 21.637 + 5.972(self-score). Therefore, body-esteem can be predicted from a self-assigned physical attractiveness score. However, neither rankings from others nor rankings of others can be used to predict body-esteem. A Pearson correlation coefficient was calculated for the relationship between subjects’ self-reported physical attractiveness and their score on the Body-esteem Scale for Adolescents and Adults. A strong positive correlation was found (r(17) = .639, p < .01), indicating a significant linear relationship between the two variables. People giving themselves lower self-reported levels of physical attractiveness tend to have lower body-esteem. A graphical representation of this relationship can be found in Figure 2.A Pearson correlation was calculated examining the relationship between the mean score others ranked an individual and the mean score that individual ranked the other participants. A weak correlation that was not significant was found (r(17) = .169, p > .05). Ranking from others is not related to ranking of others.A Pearson correlation was calculated examining the relationship between the participants’s self-reported physical attractiveness and the mean attractiveness score others ranked them. A weak correlation that was not significant was found (r(17) = .053, p > .05). Self-ranked level of physical attractiveness is not related to the attractiveness rating others will give you. A Pearson correlation was calculated examining the relationship between the participant’s self-reported physical attractiveness and how they ranked others. A weak correlation that was not significant was found (r(17) = .053, p > .05). Self-ranked level of physical attractiveness is not related to the attractiveness level you will attribute to others.A Pearson correlation was calculated examining the relationship between the participant’s score on the Body-esteem Scale for Adolescents and Adults and the mean attractiveness score others ranked them. A weak correlation that was not significant was found (r(17) = -.009, p > .05). Body-esteem is not related to the attractiveness rating others will give you.A Pearson correlation was calculated examining the relationship between the participant’s score on the Body-esteem Scale for Adolescents and Adults and the mean attractiveness score given to the other participants. A weak correlation that was not significant was found (r(17) = .011, p > .05). Body-esteem is not related to the attractiveness rating you will give to others.
DISCUSSION The results we found were not what I expected. The logical assumption would be that being surrounded by a group that is more attractive would make someone feel slightly less positive about their own physical attractiveness, and that the actual physical attractiveness of a person as reported by others would vary with their own body-esteem. In reality, none of the factors I measured besides self-reported physical attractiveness were shown to correlate with body-esteem. Surprisingly, the way others saw the participant had little to no effect on the participant’s reported physical attractiveness (r(17) = .053, p > .05) or measured body-esteem (r(17) = -.009, p > .05). There are several ways I would improve the design of this study if I were to conduct it again or suggest it for replication. I think one of the major flaws with this research was the small sample size. I would predict that increasing the sample size greatly (and thus increasing the power) would produce stronger statistics in future research. Also, the number of mitigating factors involved with body-esteem is so great that I think improving the consistency of the data collection procedure would be necessary. I would suggest controlling for extraneous variables as tightly as possible, so as to eke out any correlation that may be present. For example, I think the number of people per group should have been more regulated, as well as the demographics of the participants. Although the sample was fairly random, the students who actually showed up for research were very predominantly traditional college-aged females. In the future, I would try to study a particular age or gender more exclusively. Due to the problems with this research at the internal validity level, I would not place much confidence in the generalizability of the results. The more we learn about what factors influence low body-esteem, the better we can shape our society in an attempt to help people feel better about themselves.I would be interested in further research concerning the effect of surrounding people on body-esteem. A possible research area is the influence of sociocultural factors on body-esteem. Further, I would be interested to see how varying levels of intimacy influence the effect of others on body-esteem. What effect do close, personal friends and family have? Significant others? How does this relate to the influence of strangers? I would also be interested in investigation how gender influences body-esteem and the mediating variables studied in this preliminary work.
REFERENCES Cusumano, D.L., & Thompson, J.K. (1997). Body image and body shape ideals in magazines: Exposure, awareness, and internalization. Sex Roles, 37, 701-721. Freedman, R.J. (1984). Reflections on beauty as it relates to health in adolescent females. Women & Health, 9, 29-45.Giant, C.L., & Vartanian, V.L. (2001). Ally McBeal vs. Arnold Schwarzenegger’: Comparing mass media, interpersonal feedback and gender as predictors of satisfaction with body thinness and muscularity. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 29, 711-724.Kilmartin, C., Kliewer, W., Myers, B.J., & Polce-Lynch, M. (2001). Adolescent self-esteem and gender: Exploring relations to sexual harassment, body image, media influence, and emotional expression. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 30, 225-245. Mendelson, B.K., Mendelson, M.J., & White, D.R. (2001). Body-esteem scale for adolescents and adults. Journal of Personality Assessment, 76, 90-106. Mundray, K., & Ogden, J. (1996). The Effect of the Media on Body Satisfaction: the Role of Gender and Size. European Eating Disorders Review, 4, 171-182. O’Dell, Amanda C. (2005). Physical Attractiveness Scale, personal correspondence.Palladino Green, S., & Pritchard, M. (2003). Predictors of body image dissatisfaction in adult men and women. Social Behavior & Personality, 31, 215-222. Strong, S., Geer, J., Netemyer, R., & Williamson, D. (2000). Eating disorder symptoms and concerns about body differ as a function of gender and sexual orientation. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19, 240-255.
APPENDIXES Appendix APhysical Attractiveness Scale
Please rank the physical attractiveness of the other participants around you, on a scale from one to ten, 1 being not attractive at all, and 10 being very attractive. Identify the participant by the chair they are sitting in.
Participant #1: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Participant #2: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Participant #3: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Participant #4: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Participant #5: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Participant #6: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Participant #7: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
How would you rank your own physical attractiveness, on a scale from one to ten? Please indicate how you would rank yourself by circling the correct response:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
FIGURE CAPTIONS Figure Captions
Figure 1. Body-Esteem Scale for Adolescents and Adults
Figure 2. Body-esteem scores correlated with self-reported physical attractiveness rankings